Monday, April 23, 2012


“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
-- Daniel Patrick Moynihan

In the weeks and months to come, residents of the Badger State will be targeted by unprecedented advertising expenditures from political parties, individual campaigns, and the shadow political action groups that support them without the need for donor disclosure.

Much of the barrage will be negative and loosely based on what political comedian Stephen Colbert would call “truthiness.” This is because negative advertising works. The average voter’s perception of reality conforms to preconceived beliefs; they are predisposed to absorb confirming information while ignoring that which doesn’t conform.

In other words, we will believe what we want to whether it’s true or not, so long as it matches our views. Yet very few of us will take the time to research and validate what we see or hear.

In the parallel reality of partisan politics, truth often becomes a relative and disputable term. While your average toothpaste manufacturer is constrained by the Federal Trade Commission rules and penalties from telling lies about their product or the competition, similar standards do not apply to political candidates under the free speech protection of the First Amendment. Many campaigns decide that confronting falsehood and distortion only reinforces misinformation through repetition.

Librarians are notoriously fact-based. So, too, are the opposition researchers who travel the country conducting the investigatory groundwork upon which political advertising is based. This may come as a surprise to anyone who has visualized the oppo-squad crawling on their bellies through the back alleys and dark byways of twilight truth.

In a new book called We’reWith Nobody; Two insiders reveal the dark side of American politics, former journalists turned full time opposition researchers Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian draw the curtain back on their work as truth seekers. In their view, “documenting that truth is more critical than ever, when today’s news is prone to distortion, willful ignorance and lies; when untruths go viral in the blogosphere overnight and even conventional media sources give airtime and print space to erroneous claims and rumors…’Truth’ is a word that should never be qualified. It’s like pregnancy; it’s yes or no.”

Huffman and Rejebian could have shared the soul of a librarian in a previous life. “Considering how blithely the truth is often regarded today,” Huffman relates, he and his partner, “sometimes feel like the relics of a simpler era, gathering our old-timey facts while everyone else obsesses over imaginary death panels….Our primary aim, aside from earning a living, is to help guide the political debate through the real, documented world, where talking points are derived from actual facts rather than from voices emanating from a planet far, far away.”

For his part, Rejebian admits the pair “are, admittedly, attracted to lies; we savor revealing them for what they are.” But he quickly adds, “it’s distressing to see how political lies have adapted to public scrutiny, much the way shape-shifting infections in industrial hog farms respond to tanker truckloads of antibiotics being dumped into the coursing veins of millions of host swine. The purveyors have become increasingly effective despite increasing access to the facts, in part because of the successful use of dazzle camouflage – whereby complicated imagery is superimposed on the truth to fool the eye….”

An example of dazzle camouflage.
Dazzle camouflage by the way, refers to a paint scheme used extensively on naval ships during the first and second World War consisting of a complex pattern of geometric shapes in contrasting colors that interrupt and intersect each other. Dazzle made it difficult for an observer to estimate the size, type, speed and direction of the ship and disrupted visual rangefinders used for naval artillery. It's purpose was confusion rather than concealment. More information on the combination of pop art and military technology may be found here.

Fight back with facts!

Luckily, librarians who are seeking truth for their library patrons as well as for themselves during Wisconsin’s prolonged “silly season” have an ally in Wisconsin Public Television. The Wisconsin Voter Project has links to an outstanding array of resources, including Fact Check 101 a toolkit developed in conjunction with a series of free interactive workshops being conducted in public libraries throughout the state.

The Fact Check 101 workshop handout gives voters the tools to be their own political truth seekers as they cut through the Razzle Dazzle.

Looking for more fact checking links? (Annenberg Public Policy Center, University of Pennsylvania) A nonpartisan, nonprofit ‘consumer advocate’for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics. Monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major U.S. political players in the form of TV ads, debates, speeches, interviews and news releases. An educational resource for high school teachers and students. It’s designed to help students learn to cut through the fog of misinformation and deception that surrounds the many messages they’re bombarded with every day.

PolitiFact: Sorting out the truth in politics A project of the St. Petersburg Times whose reporters and editors fact-check statements by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists and interest groups and rate them on a Truth-O-Meter. Get the truth about rumors, inspirational stories, virus warnings, hoaxes, scams, humorous tales, pleas for help, urban legends, prayer requests, calls to action, and other forwarded emails.

Urban Legends: Politics ( Analyzes factual claims and attributions of many of the widely circulated stories.

Politics: Soapbox ( Many political opinion pieces circulate with no identifying authorship or publication information, or with credits mistakenly attributing them to the wrong sources. This tool attempts to set the record straight on those counts for some of the more widely-circulated pieces.

Urban Legends: Politics / Law / Government ( Urban legends, rumors and Internet hoaxes pertaining to government, politics and politicians.

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